‘Atlanta’ Director Hiro Murai on Ending the Show and Breaking Every TV Rule on the Way Out
Since its premiere in 2016, FX’s Atlanta has distinguished itself from everything else on television, from its complete disregard for conventional storytelling to its increasingly voracious appetite for the bizarre. And, most viscerally, with its aerial shots of the city, dimly lit interior scenes, and the overall eerie mood, Atlanta looks and feels like no other show. And no one has been more influential in shaping the otherworldly visual tone (which in many ways, influences the narrative) of Atlanta than director and executive producer Hiro Murai. When Murai is in the director’s chair, nightclubs become labyrinths and an ambient chirping of insects create a foreboding ambience of dread. He can make you feel the unmerciful Georgia sun on the back of your neck as effectively as he can make you feel jump scares in the streets of Amsterdam.
The 39-year-old Murai has directed more episodes of Atlanta than anyone else, including a number of the show’s defining episodes: the pilot, but also the tone-shifting “Alligator Man”; the ominous “Teddy Perkins”; and “Three Slaps,” to name a few. Murai, who has also directed music videos for the likes of Usher, Lupe Fiasco, Earl Sweatshirt, St. Vincent, and FKA twigs, has been in lockstep with creator Donald Glover since directing his 2013 short film, Clapping for the Wrong Reasons. Light on plot and heavy on the surreal, Clapping was in many ways the precursor to Atlanta, exhibiting Murai’s aversion to “rules” and willingness to follow random threads, no matter how peculiar or inexplicable.
Murai’s work on Atlanta, his first venture into television, has made him one of the medium’s most sought-after directors. He has helmed seminal episodes of HBO’s Barry and served as a director and executive producer for the network’s acclaimed limited series, Station Eleven. He’s also an executive producer for The Bear, FX’s breakout hit of the summer, and is working with Glover on his forthcoming TV adaptation of Mr. And Mrs. Smith. And in the midst of this, he’s trying to make time to enjoy the last days of Atlanta. He explodes into laughter at the mere mention of “Crank Dat Killer,” this week’s new episode, which he directed. “I love that episode so much, it is a wild one,” Murai tells me between laughs. “There’s a couple of really great gems coming your way, I hope you dig it.”
With only four more episodes remaining, Murai spoke to GQ about the end of Atlanta, its connection to The Sopranos, and the show’s lauded visual language.
When did you all start the conversation about why it felt right to end Atlanta after four seasons, and what the end of the show might look like?
Donald said this before, but we never expected to be making more after season 2. It felt like a punctuation mark at the end of that season. Our thought was that, if we’re going to do more, there has to be a logical endpoint. We can’t just do the same thing we were doing in the first two seasons; there has to be a purpose to keep telling this story and there has to be a good ending. I think it was a discovery process for the writers, but it felt like we had more stories to tell. Some time has passed between season 2 and now, so it felt like these characters had to grow, become something else, and face new challenges. So it’s not like we approached it like, “Let’s bring back seasons 1 and 2,” but more like OK, what happens if these characters keep succeeding and being placed in new situations? How would they react? What would feel good to the audience in terms of those characters? How can we give them a good ending?
How much time has elapsed between the end of season 3 and the beginning of season 4?
I’ll just say that the timeline is very abstract in Atlanta [laughs]. I think giving a concrete answer would kind of ruin it, to be honest.
So in season 4, there’s the obvious return to Atlanta. There’s the reappearance of characters like Tracy, Uncle Willy, and Earn’s parents, and there’s the resurfacing of old plot lines the audience probably stopped expecting resolution to. But what I’ve taken away from season 4 is that, for these characters, “coming home” or “going back” is impossible at this point. Beginning with the premiere, there are not-so-subtle messages that the city is either too small for them or that they otherwise don’t belong there anymore. But it feels like that idea extends to the show as well, because you all avoid doing the same thing twice. Is that accurate?
Absolutely. And that’s the thing: the surest way to fail is to try and replicate something that we’ve already done. We were very specific people when we did seasons 1 and 2; we’re not those people anymore. So the best thing we can do for the show, and for ourselves, is to be honest with who we are now. How would we deal with the situation now? What are we doing in Atlanta in 2021? How would we make this show now? Each season is kind of a discovery process. We’re never trying to recapture something that worked in the past, we’re not the same people. The city isn’t the same place—we haven’t been in Atlanta since 2017. It’s just trying to be honest with where we are now and how much we’ve changed since then. So we’re basically trying to make a show around that.
And because none of you are the same people, the characters aren’t the same either. All of your lives have changed dramatically since Atlanta began.
Yeah, and Donald’s talked about this too, but it would’ve felt really weird if we were in our late 30s pretending we’re still like, 25 and on the come up. That story would’ve felt dishonest, so we had to figure out how to keep telling stories without pretending like we’re something else.
You directed the fourth episode of this season, which is about getting older, as well as Earn and Alfred not wanting to get caught in the same toxic cycle as their family. It’s implied that leaving Atlanta might be necessary—and I’ve always gotten the sense that Earn never intended to return permanently in the first place. Are those two in particular looking beyond the city at this point?
Maybe. I think it’s them trying to gauge what the city means to them now that they’ve traveled the world and seen [things]. In season 2, Al had never left Georgia until that tour at the end. So I think it’s them coming back, considering what the city means to them and what they can get from it, and what they’re willing to give to the city. And I think people will come away with different conclusions about their relationship to the city.
The show has a very sharp perspective on fame. At this point, everyone has “made it” or benefitted from Alfred’s success in some way, but success is rarely depicted as fun. Brian Tyree Henry is exceptional at expressing exasperation at all the ridiculousness that surrounds stardom. Even though we hear that he’s doing arena tours and we can point to his SUV or clothes as tangible evidence of his success, he still never seems to be enjoying himself. What’s behind the show’s negative take on success?
I think success is fun because these characters didn’t have power before, so there’s something cathartic about having connections and resources all of a sudden. But the other side of that is that fame is a monster. It sort of eats you alive and your relationship to the world changes. You can’t go anywhere. Everybody has a one-sided relationship with you because they know who you are. So for someone like Alfred, who’s more on the reclusive side, it can be a very existential experience. And to your point, Brian plays that “Where the fuck am I? Why am I here?” so perfectly. His face does all the work.
I feel like a significant portion of Altanta’s audience had a particular idea of the show based on the first two seasons. Then came the four-year absence between seasons 2 and 3, which then looked and felt different than the show people fell in love with. I’ve seen Donald discuss the fast one you originally played on FX to get the network’s buy-in and get the show made. But was it planned to do the same to the audience? For example, even season 2 was much darker than season 1.
We always want to surprise people. We don’t want to do the thing that’s expected and that’s always been the fun part for us. But also, and I think Stephen [Glover] has talked about this too, but we look at every season of Atlanta as an album. So yes, it is a linear story of these four people and hopefully you watch and get a series-long arc out of it, but we want to do something different every season and stretch the world to see if it can be something else. Even between seasons 1 and 2, I think it’s a pretty drastically different show. And then season 3 was our weird, experimental concept album. When we were making it, we were like: “This will really tell us how much this show can stretch. It might just snap at a certain point.” But that was kind of our gameplan from the start: How much can we play with the sandbox and what else can we make out of this?
It feels like there’s a “What if?” and “Can we get away with this?” approach to storytelling.
“Can we get away with this?” is a really good way to frame it [laughs].
A lot was said about the show’s big shift in season 3, when it veered from your previous narrative structure. I get the sense that you were conditioning the audience for drastic bizarre turns all along through Ahmad White, Marcus Miles’ invisible car, “B.A.N.,” and the season 2 robbery cold open, in terms of composition and narrative advancement. And, of course, the mind fuck of “Teddy Perkins.” Those were primers for how weird season 3 got, right??
That’s the thing: the episode before “Teddy Perkins” was “Barbershop.” It could not be more different, you know? And it’s always been intentional: After this episode people are going to expect this, so how do we play with the expectation?
But after the absence and the mixed response to season 3, it seems like neither the average TV viewer nor the TV Academy knew what to make of the show anymore, and season 4 hasn’t sparked nearly as much buzz as it did in the early years. I don’t have a crystal ball, but it feels like Atlanta could go out quietly after starting with a bang. I know you don’t create to serve the audience, but how do you feel about Atlanta no longer being the critical darling it once was when all you’ve done is take a more aggressive approach to what Atlanta always did?
We never aimed to have 16 Emmy nominations; that was never our goal. That was just a byproduct of what we did in the context of that cultural moment. I think you have to keep making things from the place of “This is what I want to see” and hope that it connects with people. Yeah, we were consciously pushing against that in season 3 in some ways, but even during season 2, we didn’t know “Teddy Perkins” was going to connect with people. We thought people were going to be like: “…I thought this was a comedy.” We talk about it now in a way that feels like it was intentional from the start, but we’ve always just done the thing we wanted to do because it brought us joy. So, to me, the legacy of the show is us, as a collective, experimenting on television—which is a very difficult space to experiment. So I don’t know, people take the show for what it is. I’m not too concerned about where it ranks in people’s minds or how many nominations we get during awards season.
In your opinion, what is the best episode of Atlanta so far and why?
Okay, I don’t know if this is the best episode, but the episode very early on where we were all like, “Oh, this is what the show is,” was episode 2 of season 1 where Earn’s in jail and Al’s walking around interacting with everyone after he’s gotten famous for the shooting incident in the pilot. That felt like the show was already clicking into place. It was kind of surrealist and slice-of-life, vignette-ish. It felt like not a lot was happening, but it was character driven. And it felt like it was playing with serious themes, but it was playing with them in a non-preachy way. I think that was the first script that Stephen [Glover] wrote, which is also crazy to me. But that felt like an early episode where we were like, “Oh, this is good” and felt like the specific voice we were aiming for.
Do you feel like you can see Atlanta’s influence elsewhere across TV?
It’s hard to quantify how culture moves and how much we’re part of that conversation, but I definitely feel like people are experimenting more on television. I think early on, we really wanted to make something that was driven by feeling and not necessarily by plot. And I definitely see that more on TV now. That felt like a weird gamble at the time, but less so now. But we also took stuff from The Sopranos and Louie, so it’s all part of a larger conversation.
Speaking of The Sopranos, I’ve seen both Donald and Stephen make reference to The Sopranos in discussing seasons 3 and 4 of Atlanta, and the ending of the show in general. The Sopranos, of course, had one of the most divisive conclusions to a TV show in the history of the medium. Do you think the series finale of Atlanta will be broadly satisfying or do you think people are going to be arguing about it for years like The Sopranos?
[Laughs] Hard to say, because we feel a certain way about it, but you never know how the world’s going to react. I’ll say this: We’re all very satisfied with the ending. It just feels like the right way for this particular show to end—and it’s not just the finale. In the last couple of episodes, we give you an ending in a surprising way for all of the characters, I think.
What I admire about all of you as creators, is that you’re uninterested in catering to the audience. In an era of fan service, I can respect that.
It’s not a show where we had the ending of the series in the very beginning and we’re just trying to work backwards towards it, it’s way more organic than that.
Every director has their own approach to the show, but you’re the one who set the table. You did half of the first season, and you’ve done so many of the big episodes. I’m curious as to how you would describe Atlanta’s visual aesthetic and how it’s evolved over four seasons.
People use the word “dreamy” a lot and I think that’s apt because I think there’s something timed and soft about the way we make the show, but it can also turn on a dime and become terrifying. We’re always reaching for a tone where you don’t know if a joke is coming or if someone’s gonna get shot; it could go either way. I think to achieve that, we’re doing this thing where it feels grounded, or like it lives in a very particular world, but it also has one foot off the ground a little bit, to the point that it feels a little wobbly. It’s a hard thing to define, but between the performances, the way we shoot it, and the way we use sound and music, we like to create a certain atmosphere. When you’re in a dream, everything feels real in the moment until something crazy happens and then you go, “Wake up, that was a dream.” I think that’s the vibe we’re always reaching for.
They’re different shows, but is there a way that you approached Barry and Station Eleven that’s different from how you approach Atlanta from a visual standpoint?
Well, the aesthetic of Atlanta is so dictated by the city. That’s such a unique place, even down to the fact that if you go to the city’s outskirts, it’s just completely overgrown. It feels kind of like a mythic place. Aesthetically, it feels like nothing you’ve seen before. It’s the American South, but it’s overgrown, it’s lush, and it feels like a jungle. The aesthetic of the architecture is all over the place. There’s a lot of new construction—brand new buildings next to barbecue shacks that have been around for hundreds of years. It’s just a wild, interesting, eclectic place, so I think so much of the show’s aesthetic and personality is sort of built on the back of what the city’s doing anyway.
You’re still going to work with a lot of the people you’ve worked with on Atlanta moving forward, but how does it feel to leave the show behind, considering what it’s done for you personally and how personal the show is for all of you, as well as what it’s done culturally?
It’s really emotional—it’s like graduating high school or something. We are all so tied to each other’s lives and the show is such a big part of all of our lives. Everybody’s done so many great things since the show started, but whenever we get back together, it just feels like hanging out with your high school friends. You all know where you came from. So it’s definitely bittersweet, we’re all proud of the show and what we got to do together, and I’m sure we’ll keep doing stuff, but it definitely feels like the end of an era. It’s like the end of a chapter, for sure.
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